Bill Pace expands fruit stand operation in Bellevue
Bill Pace opens a second produce store at the Newport Hills Shopping Center as the start date for the light-rail extension approaches.
Seattle Times business reporter
Origins: A native of Arkansas, Bill Pace moved with his father to Yakima at age 14, joined the Air Force at 21 and bought his father’s farm when he was in his early 40s.
Number of employees: In season, 13 full-time employees, three part-timers, plus the help of his grandson and business partner Ray Pace, and his wife, Marianne, who runs the coffee shop.
Annual revenue: About $200,000.
Operations: Two produce markets, the Mercer Slough U-pick Blueberry Farm, the 30-acre Yakima farm with peaches, pears and apples as his best sellers; and 61 bee hives in Carnation.
Quote: “I looked like a gypsy peddler going down the road,” Pace says of the days when he lashed boxes of fruit to the roof of his station wagon while driving over Snoqualmie Pass.
While most people are retired well before age 83, Bill Pace is busy expanding his fruit-market business in Bellevue.
“My grandpa always said, ‘Find something you love to do and stick with it,’ ” Pace says with a laugh that erupts through the produce store he opened six months ago in the south Bellevue neighborhood of Newport Hills. “Well, I love my wife and my job. I’m never going to retire.”
Technically, Pace retired at age 67 from a Boise Cascade lumberyard in Bellevue. But, for more than 20 years he worked full time there during the day and sold fruit from his Eastern Washington farm in the lumberyard parking lot at night.
In 2001, the city approached Pace about selling his fruit at the Mercer Slough Blueberry Farm and operating the U-pick, so he grew from selling out of his truck to a 1,200-square-foot stand. He’s been there 11 years.
Now, Pace is preparing for the day when construction of the East Link light-rail route will cross over the blueberry- farm entrance, causing both the stand and farm to close for three to five years.
He has dodged retirement again by opening an additional location four miles south in Newport Hills to keep his business going during construction. He said he just hopes his customers can find him up the hill.
“Nobody really knows where Newport Hills is,” he explains while standing in the chilly produce store between stacked pallets covered in every kind of colorful squash, some with warts some without, and pumpkins. “We’ll need to get some signs up.”
“Once I got it going and got it paid for ... it just grew,” he says. “And before I knew it, I was really having fun.”
So, after work every night, Pace would drive his station wagon over Snoqualmie Pass to Yakima, load his station wagon with as many boxes of apples, pears and peaches as he could and drive them to the lumber yard, where he sold the fruit to his co-workers and eventually all his co-worker’s friends and then friends of friends.
“I looked like a gypsy peddler going down the road,” he says. He eventually upgraded to a large truck that held 512 boxes of fruit.
With construction of the East Link light rail breaking ground along Bellevue Way Southeast in 2015 or 2016, Pace decided he had to come up with a Plan B.
“I couldn’t wait for [Sound Transit] to finally say ‘OK, you have to leave, we are finally starting construction;’ I’d run out of business,” he says. “If I’m going to have a business, I need a place to go — a place without a Costco or QFC right next door.”
Pace opened his new 9,000-square-foot Bill Pace Fruit and Produce and a cafe in Newport Hills in April, and it will be open year-round. The Bellevue Way stand will close in mid-November, but Pace says he will continue to open it and the blueberry farm every spring until the light-rail construction begins. Once it does, he will sell the blueberries in his new location until the U-pick reopens.
“I felt they needed me here. The parking lot was like a ghost town,” he says of the Newport Hills Shopping Center on 119th Avenue Southeast. “ All these empty buildings around — the Bank of America, the Red Apple, the Hallmark place.”
Even with the community support, it took Pace a year to come to an agreement with the shopping-center owner about which space Pace would move into, then another year to prepare the space to store produce and get the permits.
“We were waiting for him to arrive,” Newport Hills resident John Huber says while waiting for his son to come out of taekwondo class a few doors down from the Pace Cafe. “We knew he was coming, and we were excited for our own neighborhood version of Pike Place.”
With Bill Pace Fruit and Produce, Pace Café and a new burger joint across the parking lot, Newport Hills residents and the community club are starting to feel optimistic that maybe the revitalization is possible.
“We were nearly empty a few years ago, but since then the Kumon learning opened, the taekwando studio is doing really well, and now we have Cloud 9 that took over the old Dairy Queen,” says Hilhorst. “So we have seen revitalization happen — 80 percent of the storefronts are full.”
On Oct. 21, the Bellevue City Council approved the Newport Hills request for signage on Coal Creek Parkway. When Pace shuts down the Bellevue Way stand for the winter, he says he is also going to put up signs telling his customers where they can find him: “Only four miles down the road.”
Coral Garnick: 206-464-2422 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @coralgarnick